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History of the Egyptian Art

posted on: Dec 25, 2020

By: Pamela Dimitrova/Arab America Contributing Writer

Egyptian art is one of the most ancient forms of art, which amazes with its details and beauty, regardless if it’s on paper, rocks, or sand. But just a few know the history of it and the different periods that shaped the artist views, methods of work and way of expressing. Interested to know more? Continue reading down below.

Early Dynastic Art

The earliest art period was work on rock. Art from this period reaches its height in the work known as The Narmer Palette (c. 3200-3000 BCE) which was created to celebrate the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt under King Narmer (c. 3150 BCE). Through a series of engravings on a siltstone slab, shaped as a chevron shield, the story is told of the great king’s victory over his enemies and how the gods encouraged and approved his actions. Although some of the images of the palette are difficult to interpret, the story of unification and the celebration of the king is quite clear.

The Narmer Palette, Egypt, c. 3100 BCE. The inscribed slab depicts a king identified as Narmer conquering his enemies and subjugating the land. (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

The top of the palette is decorated in a similar manner on both sides: the name of the king is inscribed in a so-called serekh between two bovine heads. The animals’ heads are drawn from the front, which is rather uncharacteristic of later Egyptian art. Most of the palette’s backside is decorated with a scene showing the king about to strike down a foe, whom he grabs by the hair. This is the oldest known example of a type of scene that would continue to be used until the end of the pharaonic culture, even by kings who do not seem to have waged any wars at all. As such, the historical value of this type of scene can be doubted.

The fact that Narmer is shown wearing the White Crown on one side and the Red Crown on the other, has often been forwarded as proof that it was he who united Upper and Lower Egypt.

Similar would be used quite effectively toward the end of the Early Dynastic Period by the architects. Images of lotus flowers, papyrus plants, and the djed symbol are intricately worked into the architecture of the buildings in both high and low relief. By this time the sculptors had also mastered the art of working in stone to created three-dimensional life-sized statues.

Old Kingdom Art

This was the ‘golden period’, when a strong central government and economic prosperity combined to allow for monumental works like the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Sphinx, and elaborate tomb and temple paintings. The obelisk, first developed in the Early Dynastic Period, was refined and more widely used during the Old Kingdom. Tomb paintings became increasingly sophisticated but statuary remained static for the most part.

Art during the Old Kingdom was state-mandated which means the king or a high-ranking nobility commissioned a piece and also dictated its style. This is why there is such uniformity in Old Kingdom artwork: different artists may have had their own vision but they had to create in accordance with their client’s wishes. This paradigm changed when the Old Kingdom collapsed and initiated the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE), which was a period of drastic cultural and artistic changes.

Middle Kingdom Art

The Middle Kingdom is usually regarded as the high point of the history of Egyptian art. The tomb of Mentuhotep II is itself a work of art, sculpted from the cliffs near Thebes, which merges seamlessly with the natural landscape. The paintings, frescoes, and statuary that accompanied the tomb also reflect a high level of sophistication and, as always, symmetry. Jewelry was also refined greatly at this time with some of the finest pieces in Egyptian history dated to this era.

The influence of the First Intermediate Period continues to be seen in all the art from the Middle Kingdom, where laborers, farmers, dancers, singers, and domestic life receive almost as much attention as kings, nobles, and the gods. Artwork in tombs, however, continued to reflect the traditional view of the afterlife.

Middle Kingdom art adheres to this principle while, at the same time, hinting more at the subject’s emotional state than in earlier eras. Images of the afterlife include people enjoying the simple pleasures of life on earth like eating, drinking, and sowing and harvesting a field. The detail of these scenes emphasizes the pleasures of life on earth, which one should make the most of.

New Kingdom Art

The best artists were available to the nobility at Thebes and produced high-quality work, but non-royal artists were less skilled. This era, like the first, is also often characterized as disorganized and chaotic. Tomb paintings, statuary, temple reliefs, pectorals, headdresses, and other jewelry of high quality continued to be produced and the Hyksos, though often vilified by later Egyptian writers, contributed to cultural development.

However, two of the most famous works of Egyptian art come from this time: The bust of Nefertiti and the golden death mask of Tutankhamun.


Egyptian art became an influence on many nations and cultures. The Persians also had great respect for Egyptian culture and history and identified themselves with Old Kingdom art and architecture. The Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE) blended Egyptian with Greek art to create statuary like that of the god Serapis – himself a combination of Greek and Egyptian gods – and the art of Roman Egypt (30 BCE – 646 CE) followed this same model. Romans would draw on the older Egyptian themes and techniques in adapting Egyptian gods to Roman understanding.

The art of these later cultures would come to influence European understanding, technique, and style which would be adhered to for over 1,000 years until artists in the late 19th century CE, such as the Futurists of Italy. So-called Modern Art in the early 20th century CE was influenced too. Artists like Picasso and Duchamp were interested in forcing people to recognize their preconceptions about art and, by extension, life in creating unexpected and unprecedented compositions that broke from the past in style and technique.

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